Home » criticism, Poetry

Two from Black Ocean Press

The Man Suit

Zachary Schomburg

Upon Arrival

Paula Cisewski

In March of last year, I was one of a few editors who organized an off-site reading at AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference) in Austin, TX. One of the readers that evening was Zachary Schomburg. His surreal, insightful, hilarious, heartfelt poems won me over immediately, and I have been keeping track of his work ever since. Luckily, Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean Press was also taken with Schomburg’s poetry that same night. After being a finalist for several major contests over the course of four years, The Man Suit was finally published by Black Ocean Press, and while it feels like this book could be on any number of larger, more decorated presses, the object that is The Man Suit could not contain Schomburg’s poetry any better. From the ominous cover by Lincoln, NE-based artist Denny Schmickle, to the prose poem-friendly trim size, to the black and white telephone icons that mark The Man Suit’s second section, the actual book makes me grateful that it ended up at Black Ocean.  

I emphasize ‘contain’ because The Man Suit , as the title implies, is a book largely about costumes and what those costumes contain. The book is dotted with humans in costumes: an avocado and a wedding cake, a lung and a haircut, etc. And even when they are not in costumes per se, people are wearing log cabins and even whole ecosystems. One woman turns out to be an owl. In the section called Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene , the backdrop is of course a theater, so costumes abound.

In fact, costumes are so prevalent that they become the norm, and it is the human form that becomes, in effect, the other. What Schomburg successfully manipulates in general is the reader’s perception of what is banal versus what is exotic and powerful—a regular opera singer, a tree, or a telephone becomes as unique as an opera singer filled with trees, a tree filled with inappropriately dressed women, or a telephone housing a family of tiny spiders. A regular human head becomes just as shocking as one that is blood-spattered.

True to form, The Man Suit ’s title poem, “I’m Not Carlos,” begins with a costume: “There is a whole forest of tree machines outside Saginaw / that have been programmed to turn on me.” Here, machines are dressed as trees. But this is not the only Schomburgian trope these lines employ. The use of Saginaw is another.

The locales in The Man Suit have an almost folksy myth-like quality to them (Johannes Göransson, on his blog Exoskeleton , points out that much of Schomburg’s tone may very well come from the American tall tale tradition). Pulled from either standard jokes or pranks—Lake Titicaca for example—or perhaps from Schomburg’s personal mythology, or simply from his vast imagination, places like the Electric Mole, Canada, the Sea of Japan, any number of Great Lakes or Prince-named islands, are appropriated from their world of origin and placed into the world of this book. His characters, when dressed up, have two identities: the costumed and the uncostumed. The same holds true for Schomburg’s locales. Like the Magritte painting in which we are confronted with both our cultural notion of a train and the surrealist image of a train barreling out of a fireplace, “I’m Not Carlos” forces us to oscillate between the Saginaw in Michigan and the Saginaw in The Man Suit . Between some guy named Carlos in the world and some guy named Carlos in a poem called “I’m Not Carlos:” “Sometimes they call me on the telephone and whisper / things. Give us the man suit, Carlos. Just give us the man suit .”

This is another Schomburg trademark: violence. Or in this particular case, the threat of violence. These tree machines are programmed to do the speaker in, especially, as it turns out, if they aren’t given the man suit. While it is shadowed by real-world violence, much like the places and characters of The Man Suit are shadowed by their real-world counterparts, this violence is not grotesque or worrisome. In one of the prose blocks in {Opera Singer}, Schomburg makes this explicit:

“Let’s hear {opera singer} while the forests
collapse in on themselves, while the fire takes the swans.
Things quickly get out of hand. Just as quickly, things are

One gets the sense that most of the damage done by the violence throughout the book can just as easily be undone. I can imagine some readers pointing out this discrepancy between the actual thing and the thing in the book as a flaw—the neutering of such things as violence. It seems to me, however, that The Man Suit successfully negotiates a deal with the reader via the democratic surrealism with which all of its subject matter is treated, rendering such objections moot. The places in The Man Suit will only remind you of places, humans will only remind you of humans, and hemorrhaging will only remind you of hemorrhaging. By decontextualizing violence, much like he does his places and characters, Schomburg puts the impetus on the reader to note the resonance between the violence of their world, and the violence of his.

As the title implores us to believe, the speaker of “I’m Not Carlos” isn’t Carlos. But Carlos does appear and/or is mentioned, according to the handy index in the back of The Man Suit , seven times, and repetition like this is par for the course. Abraham Lincoln, or “Abe,” appears throughout the book, not just in Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene . Even his famous log cabin is featured multiple times. Marlene appears and reappears in several poems, and then an “M” factors heavily in Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene . The list of repetitive characters, themes, and places (even Saginaw is brought up again) is endless. My first instinct was to be critical of such arcs—it seemed that the now fashionable idea of a book as a unified whole and not simply a collection of poems got the best of Schomburg. I asked myself what the index might look like if the arcs were less manipulated and instead were organic results of an artist’s obsessions. But invariably, these arcs feel necessary, sewing the book together like a repetitive strain of melody played in various songs on a concept album. Perhaps the arcs could be more organic. Perhaps Schomburg’s fingerprints are a bit too prevalent in the creation of those arcs. But part of the book’s inherent music is its self-consciousness—a self-consciousness, in addition to the repetition, that may well be an organic aesthetic, one that has a lineage outside of poetry. David Letterman comes to mind, as if Schomburg is about to say, “Did you hear that, Paul…inappropriately dressed!”

For me, this self-conscious repetition is another extension of the costume idea, but instead of an actual disguise, the subject is denatured either by seeing it in a variety of contexts or through shear overexposure (like saying a word over and over again to make it sound weird). For Carlos, this repetition seems to haunt the speaker at times, making him question his own identity. In the third poem of the black telephone/white telephone section, not-Carlos is at a loss: “The white telephone is still ringing. It is a call for / somebody named Carlos—I’m sure of it. It is the only call I / seem to get anymore.” The tone here is one of exasperation, as if the speaker, himself disoriented by the repetitious phone calls, might be ready to concede that maybe they’re right…maybe he is Carlos.

Schomburg expertly defamiliarizes familiar things—for his readers and characters alike—so that the man suit, this thing that defines our human form, is itself a disguise, one that renders us a bit confused as to our own identity. Sort of the ultimate costume. What this allows us to do is view ourselves with rare objectivity. This, along with its breadthless imagination and its dueling undercurrents of despair and humor makes Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit an indispensable first book.

  Paula Cisewski’s Upon Arrival , also employs a certain defamiliarization. Whereas Schomburg disguises his characters in costumes, Cisewski’s characters are disguised in syntax: “My father is taking place / on a boat watching the sunset.” In these lines from “My Dearest Memory,” Cisewski depicts her father as a phenomenon, and in so doing renders the sunset a minor character. Even the boat comes alive, the ambiguous syntax suggesting that it and not the father character is the one watching the sunset. These lines could have easily read, “My father is on a boat / watching the sunset take place.” Later in the poem, things are clarified: “my father occurs to me / as the best audience / the sky has ever had.” Things are refamiliarized a bit. The father, though still the center of the speaker’s attention, is no longer the center of the universe—the sky, and the sun in particular, are the main attractions.

But instead of simply saying “it occurs to me that my father / is the best audience / the sky has ever had,” Cisewski confirms the father’s status as a force of nature by having him occur to the speaker, like a thought would. It echoes Evan Dando’s “Alison’s starting to happen to me,” and whether Cisewski is a Lemonheads fan or not, the third iteration of this trope is eerily similar: “my father happens / to have always worn glasses.” It seems that, even though the syntax here is quite normal, Cisewski is very aware of her construction—the line could have read “It just so happens that / my father has always worn glasses” or simply “my father has / always worn glasses.” The line break after “happens” emphasizes this repetitive syntax, and the progression of these three syntactical events—from completely figurative to completely normative—suggests that Cisewski is up to something.

The poem begins: “In this dream I must selectively / apply the law of gravity to myself / or I fly off the world.” It seems that the progression of the father from phenomenon—he takes place, he occurs, and he happens—to ordinary character is the reverse of what is happening in The Man Suit . While Schomburg dresses his characters up, Cisewski unmasks her characters. It seems her goal then is to recast them, to ‘apply the law of gravity’ to them—not necessarily to rescue them from posterity, but to reclaim them for her own memory, to keep herself from flying ‘off the world.’ “If that is him /” Cisewski writes in the last stanza of “My Dearest Memory,” “out in the middle of the lake, / who pushes me in? And who / eventually fishes me out?”

We see this character-as-phenomenon—or vice versa—throughout Upon Arrival . In “Our Possible Brother,” Cisewski asks, “You can say him / but can you prove him?” as if ‘he’ were a theory. In another poem concerned with scientific theory, “The Motto For Anyone Who Falls Into a Black Hole Must Be ‘Think Imaginary’,” the opposite actually occurs—conversation, a phenomenon, is portrayed as a character: “talk will drink its way from feta to fate.” In this way, Upon Arrival is similar to The Man Suit , in which a monster emcees a variety hour and humans act like bears.

But Cisewski’s syntactical costumes serve a different end. Whether flying off the world, being fished out of a lake, losing a brother, or falling into a black hole, the speaker of these poems views the physical universe as something that takes place, temporally occurs, happens. An inevitability, based on the laws of the physical world, pervades the book, and in Fallings From Us , the first of the book’s three sections, Cisewski deftly establishes this with a syntax of, to borrow a word from “The Motto..,” fate.

But this is not a divine or whimsical fate. Much like the first section, what is pending throughout the second and third sections is grounded in the natural world. In “How Birds Work,” the title poem of the second section, Cisewski uses birds as a litmus to test the laws of nature, something—as the striking cover of the book would suggest—she does throughout Upon Arrival : “Hummingbirds hanging there / don’t really stop time.” With this anti-metaphor, Cisewski makes a concession of sorts that poetry has no real power over these laws. She sees a hummingbird and presumably thinks, “it hangs there as if time is standing still.” But recognizing her penchant for metaphor, she realizes that this is simply not the case, no matter how much her poetic sensibility wills it to be so: “Birds! Am I being unfaithful to time? / Who with a ribbon tied to its leg / still won’t let me catch up.”

Time and its interaction with memory, as it did in “My Dearest Memory,” and “The Motto…,” is perhaps the most prevalent symptom in Upon Arrival , of the universe’s inevitability. Cisewski writes in “Here On Somnambulist Avenue:”

the universe expand[s]

while the shut eyelids of babies flit

and the lips of mothers part softly

in gentle snores while pushing

carriages out into the street.

In this poem, which appears in the third section, the section for which the book was named, Cisewski exhibits her impressive range, perhaps more so than in any other poem in the collection. She leaps, in a matter of five short lines, from the outer limits of the universe to the extremely local. Cisewski implies that since time is passing, even while we sleep, things are occurring, taking place, happening. The universe is ominously expanding. Nature, we assume, is taking its course. And humans, because of our very nature, are causing tragedies—certainly one of the things we inevitably do.

If Upon Arrival is flawed in any way, it is when Cisweski makes leaps like this and then fills in the details. In “My Dearest Memory,” Cisewski questions the vision of her memory: “Wait. Did my father wear glasses? / It must not be him in the boat.” She then, instead of letting this resonate, follows it with a narration of sorts: “Memory of / a memory/ I do remember / remembering it / vividly.” She does a similar thing in “The Motto…,” following up lines that require space to breathe with further, perhaps unnecessary, explanation. Lines like “if we’re going / to have this much more night we should / do something more beautiful with it” would be best served if left to their own devices. However, Cisewski continues: “than / drive to yet another party where the talk / will drink its way from feta to fate.” While in both instances Cisewski explicitly addresses her poetics—a poetics based on memory and fate—the preceding lines are strong enough to survive on their own.

But any minor and rare missteps made in Upon Arrival are far outweighed by the original and versatile voice Cisewski establishes. Employing this voice with a rare formal agility—the variety of modes she successfully navigates is astonishing—Cisewski examines the micro (her nostalgia and signature obsessions) in service of showing us the macro (how the laws of the universe govern our fate). Upon Arrival is a beautiful collection that, along with Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit, showcases not only the brave range of Black Ocean Press, but reinvigorates the notion that, despite its infinite combinations and recombinations, it is possible to recognize what works in contemporary poetry.

Chris Tonelli lives in Cambridge, MA where he runs The So and So Series. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sawbuck, H_NGM_N, Melancholia’s Tremulous Dreadlocks, Good Foot, The Okay Mountain Reader, Kulture Vulture, Typo, Drunken Boat, Inch, Word For/Word, Verse, RealPoetik, New York Quarterly, Sonora Review, Asheville Poetry Review, GutCult, LIT, and Redivider. Poems of his will also be included in the anthologies The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel – Second Floor and Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets . His chapbook, WIDE TREE: Short Poems, is available from Kitchen Press.